Discussions of Mormons and Mormon life, Book of Mormon issues and evidences, and other Latter-day Saint (LDS) topics.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

What a Meal in Shanghai Can Teach Us about the Book of Mormon

This post follows up on my previous post about "The Grainsayers."

This week I enjoyed a wonderful conversation and some great food at Shanghai's best and healthiest bakery (IMHO), Nancy's Bakery on Weifang Street in PuDong District. Nancy is a Shanghai woman who has traveled to Europe and Brazil to study the culinary arts and bring back great international cooking. With imported European flours, her breads are the best in Shanghai, and she offers a variety of other dishes with top-notch, healthy ingredients that Westerners and Chinese love. Her amazing bread has attracted one of the great entrepreneurs of China whom I got to meet on this last visit to the bakery. That's another story I hope to share someday (teaser: he's strengthening and transforming China, with the help of Utah, of all places).

While dining at Nancy's, after an exotic main course, a hearty soup, and some other items, she brought my little group (my wife and I plus my Chinese teacher and her boyfriend) a vegetable dish of dark, chopped greens. "Ganlan" she said. "Ganlan?" I asked. "Doesn't that mean 'olive'?" She nodded, though maybe she didn't understand me. I looked at the greens and thought there's no way this came from an olive tree, but I've learned from shopping and eating in China that the names for plants can be confusing and variable, especially for foreign plants but even native Asian species pose plenty of trouble, so no need to make a fuss. Just be grateful and move on. But later I got out my handy Pleco app on my iPad and looked up the word "ganlan." Yes, ganlan means olive, but there's another "ganlan" with different characters and different tones that literally means "sweet blue" or "sweet indigo" but is translated as Chinese broccoli, or cabbage, or "gai larn" according to one dictionary, "wild cabbage" in another, "white cabbage" in another and "cabbage" or "kale" in yet another. I think "kale" is probably the best fit from the dictionary choices, though I thought it was mustard greens.

Such difficulties occur frequently. Some parts of the country or even neighbors on the same street call a given species by two or more names. The tomato, for example, is described as a type of eggplant (fanqie, where qie = eggplant) by some, or as "Western red persimmon" (xihongshi) by others. Grains, herbs, spices, fruits, birds, fish, mammals--there can be multiple names to cope with for a single species that may not reflect sound scientific logic, and this is in a single modern language. Add centuries and the complexity of translating terms to different languages and you can have all sort of confusion.

So when Mormon mentions some plants and animals that were had among the Nephites and the Jaredites, what did he mean? Had the Hebrew word (or its late Nephite derivative) typically translated as "wheat" or "barley" come to refer to grains native to the Americas such as maize or quinoa or simply New World barley? Did those words refer to many different grains depending on which Nephites or Jaredites in which century and which location you talked to? Did Mormon even know what particular species was meant in the records from centuries ago that he was drawing upon? Maybe Mormon did his best to specify a particular grain. But what if he used a term that, in Hebrew, often means wheat or barley? Is it wrong to use those terms in the translation? What if he wrote "quinoa"? How should this be translated when Joseph Smith through his divinely aided translation processes comes across the passage, but has no such word in his vocabulary? Is the "meaning" that needs to be conveyed that the Nephites planted and harvested grains, or is it important for the peer-reviewed Book of Mormon that the correct scientific name be delivered such as Chenopodium berlandieri?

Better yet, why not prophetically give the scientific name and the future bibliographic references for peer-reviewed journals that will announce the discovery of the specific domesticated grains? Wait, my mistake--maybe the Book of Mormon was not intended to impress scientists and critics on its technical merits. Maybe there's some other purpose to the book that leaves plenty of latitude in how peripheral flora and fauna are specified. Maybe the natural complexities that occur in the naming of things across language groups and across miles and centuries need to be considered when we encounter a term like "wheat" in the Book of Mormon or "ganlan" at Nancy's Bakery.

If you're having trouble with the Book of Mormon over allegedly anachronistic plants and animals in the text (such a minor issue, really), then I sincerely would like to suggest that you get out more often and join me in Shanghai at Nancy's Bakery, or even a simple grocery store, and begin exploring first hand what happens to names when cultures and languages collide.

Yes, I want the peer-reviewed version of the Book of Mormon someday with all the technical details filled in, but for now, I have to remember what the book is actually about.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Grainsayers

"Gainsayers" are those who are just looking for excuses to criticize and condemn. That term might fit a number of anti-Mormon critics. There's even a book by that title about an ex-Mormon who came back to the Church, at least for a while, after learning that the particular anti-Mormon group who had lured him away was a pretty deceptive batch of gainsayers. Recently, though, I encountered a related phenomenon: the grainsayers.

During a foolish adventure over at a Great and Spacious Website where the angry and wise ones mock all things Mormon, I was surprised to see that a highly informed ex-Mormon still included barley on his definitive list of Book of Mormon failures. You know, those lists of plants and animals mentioned the Book of Mormon that allegedly never were anywhere in the New World during Book of Mormon times, like horses, elephants, barley, and wheat. One can ask fair questions about all these matters, but to present them as slum-dunk arguments for rejecting the Book of Mormon is irresponsible, especially so in the case of barley since real domesticated pre-Columbian barley has now been found in many parts of North America, including Mexico, since anti-Mormons began nitpicking over this grain. Ah, but these discoveries don't count, that ex-Mormon explained, because they aren't the same species of barley that is found in the Old World.

Hold on, sir. The Book of Mormon in its occasional mention of barley does not require that Nephite barley was an Old World import. It merely says that "barley" was harvested. The fact that real barley was domesticated and harvested in the New World must count for something, but it's not good enough to boot the sure-fire barley argument from the bounty of arguments hoarded up in anti-Mormon granaries, ready to be ground and half-baked whenever needed. 

See "Another look at Barley in The Book of Mormon" by Tyler Livingston (and see the note at the end on the grains in Mesomerica vs. Peru issue). Also see "Barley and Wheat in the Book Mormon."

There are many questions to ask about the Book of Mormon, but let's drop the gainsaying, or rather, grainsaying. Meanwhile, we ought to be at least a little impressed with this odd little gem: sheum as a grain. Did you know about that? Do you know why it's potentially cool? Study on. 


Friday, August 24, 2012

Imagination: The Secret and Often Missing Ingredient in Charity

A formative experience for me earlier in my career was collaborating with two professors from Georgia Tech with similar technical interests. Both of these professors are Muslim. One from Egypt, one from Iran. One night at dinner, the topic of religion came up. One of them, a highly educated and widely respected man of great intelligence, told me of his love for the Koran, for the unearthly beauty of its language and the power of the text to enlighten and inspire. We could understand one another, I felt, because we both had experienced the power of a sacred text. I would later spend more time with one of them, staying overnight with his family and seeing a faithful Muslim family in their interactions with each other. I saw so much of what we Latter-day Saints aspire to: love and kindness, respect between husband and wife (a highly educated woman in this case, also with a Ph.D., as I recall), family fun together, and, yes, good food. Yes, of course I know there are severe problems in parts of the Muslim world and a lot of movements and trends that are disappointing to many of us, including many devout Muslims, just are there are problems and disappointments in our own faith and in Christendom in general. But I saw abundant evidence that intelligent, talented, loving, happy, tolerant, peace-loving people can be faithful Muslims.

There are some who would ask how any intelligent person could possibly be Muslim. A better question is to ask intelligent Muslims what their faith means to them. There's much to learn and appreciate. We don't have to accept it and agree with it, but there's benefit in understanding.

There are intelligent Muslims who sincerely wonder how any intelligent person could possibly be Christian. After all, the idea of God being born as a baby boy and then allowing Himself to be killed can just seem crazy at first blush, and the idea of God asking us to ritually drink his blood and eat his flesh might even seem offensive to some. Isn't that all just a little bizarre and backward? So it can seem. I hope they will ask us to explain and seek to understand, not just condemn. I have the same hope for our Christian peers who are outraged at what they think they know of Mormonism. How can Mormons be so stupid? Instead, I hope they'll ask us in order to understand what our faith means and why we find so much intellectual beauty in LDS theology and so much joy in our faith. (I'm not necessarily including bishopric or ward council meetings in the "joy" part.)

One of the things I really like about the Book of Mormon is its condemnation of anger and its teachings that lead to charity and peace. When the Resurrected Lord visits the Nephites in 3 Nephi 11, for example, one of the first teachings out of His mouth was condemning the anger and contention they had among themselves in their disputations over religious doctrine. The spirit of contention is not of God, He explained, and it is Satan who stirs up the hearts of men to anger against one another. Those who do the mocking in the Book of Mormon, those who give in to anger and hate, whether "religious" Nephites or apostates or Lamanites, are always on the wrong side.

At the request of someone else for a fair reason, I recently visited the Great and Spacious Website (one of several, actually) where the animosity shown in Lehi's vision was clearly evident. The anger and bitterness that some people express toward the Church and toward its defenders can be rather breathtaking. The tone of smarmy anger may be viewed as confident discussion of the truth by some, I'm sure, but it was disappointing. On a particular topic of minor importance, I engaged in dialog for a few rounds, just long enough to get a fierce dose of accusations and list of all things wrong with Mormonism, followed by the thread being swiftly shut down before I could reply any further. The party line that dominates the Great and Spacious Website and its cousins is that Mormonism is laughably ridiculous and the only way someone can defend it is to be a depraved liar, deliberately deceptive and knowingly blind. Mockery and contempt are the only worthy attitudes a reasonable person can have against so foul and disgusting a religion.

Yes, we have a ridiculous religion--from the world's perspective. If you don't believe in God, the First Vision story is appalling. If you don't have faith to accept the idea of angels, then the whole Book of Mormon story only makes sense as obvious fraud. And if you begin with a "sure knowledge" that Joseph Smith was a criminal perpetrating fraud, then the way we resolve all sorts of conflicting testimony and evidence about his life will surely only further confirm the negative and leave one wondering how anyone short of being brain dead could possibly be Mormon, much less a serious, faithful Mormon. But that approach misses the real questions that people should be asking, questions if asked sincerely could lead to understanding, perhaps even a touch of respect, and in some cases, much more.

Sadly, some Latter-day Saints in their zeal make similar mistakes. Their are religions and doctrines of others that seem far removed from the Truth as we think we know it, and it's easy to view those foreign perspectives as silly. It's easy to mock. This takes almost no mental effort and certainly no imagination. There is something much more difficult, though, and actually much more elevating. Rather than mocking, what if we sought to understand? What if we imagined that some of those who disagree with us aren't mindless robots or cesspools of deception, but might have a somewhat self-consistent framework for their viewpoints that doesn't require a frontal lobotomy? What if we imagined that they were intelligent people trying to find and understand truth, just like us? What if we asked them what they think and why, not to expose their stupidity, but to understand?

I'm not calling for relativism or saying that every religion and philosophy is valid. But there is good in every religion and beauty that we can learn from. There is intelligence in almost every religion and intelligent believers that might have something we can learn from. To have charity, the pure love of Christ, for those who disagree with us and have strongly different religious views, a vital and often missing element is imagination. We need to imagine that our opponents are, in most cases, not just trying to be evil, that they haven't sold their souls or surrendered their mind to a cult. We need to imagine that those who disagree with us, whether religiously or politically, might be just as intelligent as we are and trying just as hard to be good and to do good. So what do they see that we don't? How do they resolve the challenges they face? Why not imagine that there is something there, then ask and understand?

This attitude can save souls. I think of those in the Church who sharply disagree with some position the Church has taken or some action of its leaders. It is easy to mock. That takes no imagination at all. The wiser approach, the more charitable and imaginative one, is to ask, "What do they see? Is there something I'm missing? Is the problem, perhaps, me and my lack of understanding? Is it possible that those men are good men trying to do what's right? Is it even possible that God doesn't see things my way?" To at least enter into this inquiry can lead to surprising results. We may continue to disagree, but if we can resist the temptation to think of those we disagree with as morons and throwbacks, we may be able to hold onto the iron rod that brings us to the tree of life in spite of the mists of darkness--or, more often, the "miffs of darkness" that block our vision along the way.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Let's Talk Turkey

For those intrigued with some of the issues of plants and animals in the Book of Mormon, a recent news item from the University of Florida offers some interesting information. The possibility that turkeys may have been part of references to "flocks" in the Book of Mormon is strengthened by recent discoveries of Mayan remains showing that domesticated turkeys were present much earlier than previously realized. See "UF Researchers Discover Earliest Use of Mexican Turkeys by Ancient Maya" from Eureka Alert (eurekalert.org) in a release dated Aug. 8, 2012. An excerpt follows:

UF researchers discover earliest use of Mexican turkeys by ancient Maya

GAINESVILLE, Fla. --- A new University of Florida study shows the turkey, one of the most widely consumed birds worldwide, was domesticated more than 1,000 years earlier than previously believed.

Researchers say discovery of the bones from an ancient Mayan archaeological site in Guatemala provides evidence of domestication, usually a significant mark of civilization, and the earliest evidence of the Mexican turkey in the Maya world. The study appears online in PLoS ONE today.

The discovery of the turkey bones is significant because the Maya did not use a lot of domesticated animals. While they cultivated domesticated plants, most of their animal protein came mostly from wild resources, said lead author Erin Thornton, a research associate at the Florida Museum of Natural History on the UF campus and Trent University Archaeological Research Centre.

"We might have gotten the timing of the introduction of this species to the ancient Maya wrong by a significant chunk of time," Thornton said. "The species originates from central Mexico, outside the Maya cultural area. This is the species the Europeans brought back with them to Europe -- all domestic turkeys originated from Mexico."

Using archaeological evidence, comparisons of bone structure and ancient DNA analysis, scientists determined the turkey fossils belonged to the non-local species Meleagris gallopavo gallopavo, which is native to central and northern Mexico. The Mexican turkey is the ancestor of all domestic turkeys consumed in the world today and Mesoamerica's only indigenous domesticated animal. The discovery of the bones south of the turkey's natural range shows animal exchange occurred from northern Mesoamerica to the Maya cultural region during the Late Preclassic period from 300 B.C. to A.D. 100.

"This research has consequences for understanding Maya subsistence because they would have had access to a controlled, managed resource," Thornton said. "The turkey bones came from right within the ceremonial precinct of the site, so these are probably the remains of some sort of elite sacrifice, meal or feast."

The bones were recovered from the El Mirador archaeological site, one of the largest and most developed Preclassic locations found in the Maya lowlands. The site contains massive temple complexes, some of the largest Maya architecture ever constructed.

"Plant and animal domestication suggests a much more complex relationship between humans and the environment -- you're intentionally modifying it and controlling it," Thornton said.

Researchers assumed turkey bones previously recovered from Maya sites belonged to the native ocellated turkey, Meleagris ocellata. The new evidence means researchers may need to re-examine previously recovered bones, said Florida State University anthropology professor emeritus Mary Pohl.

"This study is extremely significant and I think it opens up a whole new perspective on the Maya and animal domestication," Pohl said. "I find it especially interesting that these turkey bones are in this very special pyramid context because people often think of turkeys as something to eat, but they were probably making some sort of special offerings of them, which would go along with the fact that they brought them in from a long distance."
Very interesting. Was Ammon risking his life to vigorously defend King Lamoni's turkey flocks? Food for thought. And thanksgiving. The relationship to religious rites (animal sacrifice) and religious sites is especially interesting.

The turkey, though, is mentioned as Mesomerica's only indigenous domesticated animal. Were there others? Does the Book of Mormon text indicate that there were multiple indigenous domesticated animals? 

Update, 8/19/2012: Sorry, but my wife has called fowl on my suggestion about Ammon. She feels that the turkey hypothesis won't fly because turkeys don't need a lot of water (see, for example, this guide on pasturing turkeys), making it unlikely that turkey flocks were being marched regularly to the old watering hole.  Well, she may be right, which tapirs down the list of possibilities.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

What A Non-LDS Scholar Said about Chiasmus

I recommend reading David Noel Freedman's preface to the scholarly book, Chiasmus in Antiquity, edited by John Welch. The full text of that intriguing book is available free online at the Maxwell Institute. Here is part of what Dr. Freedman has to say:
The more extended uses of chiasm raise further questions. As with much of literature, especially poetry, ambiguity and obscurity are inherent in the form and content: chiasm only adds to the uncertainty and mystery. Scholars now recognize chiasms beyond the simple type described above, chiasms which involve passages of verse or prose ranging in length from a few sentences to hundreds of thousands of words. This more complex form of chiasm is not merely grammatical but structural or intentional; it systematically serves to concentrate the reader's or hearer's interest on the central expression. The number of such chiastic constructions which satisfy both sets of criteria: inversion and balance on the one hand, and climactic centrality on the other, is substantially less than the simpler mechanical variety. But wherever they are present, these structures may add novel perspectives and unexpected dimension to the texts in which they appear.

There is yet a further extension of the term chiasm. Even more difficult and controversial issues arise when chiasm is defined in terms of thought and theme, rather than the more visible words and patterns. Inevitably a large subjective element enters into these discussions, and the presence or absence of chiasm on this level can become almost a voter's choice.

Scholars, therefore, may range between separated areas of research in their approach to chiasm. On the one extreme, the phenomenon itself can be described or defined rigorously, so that it is verifiable and often self-evident; while in this sense it is part of a deliberate pattern of composition, it nevertheless leaves the wider world of symbolism and significance to others. At the other end of the spectrum, definitions and limits are hard to determine, and speculation is rife; but large issues of meaning and intention can be raised, and important questions about the nature and significance of extended literary pieces are considered. The study of these great chiasms has enormous implications for analysis and interpretation, but the wider the scope and the more extended the reach, the less certain the results necessarily become. In the end, neither approach will escape if carried to extremes.

Only a book with many varieties of presentation can display the present state of chiastic studies. While a great deal of important work has been done across the many domains of ancient literature, the study of ancient literary techniques is still in ferment and flux. A common fund of axioms and assumptions and a single sure-handed methodology are yet to be established. The present volume reflects accurately both the ferment and the progress which is being made on a variety of fronts, and is all the more to be welcomed for bringing together the results of research in different literatures of antiquity. The editor is to be commended for his catholicity and courage, and for his own original contributions in several domains including a unique treatment of the Book of Mormon. His introduction to the whole work is indispensable. [emphasis added]

--David Noel Freedman
Dr. Freedman has been called one of the world's foremost scholars on the Bible. You can also read about him on Wikipedia. He passed away in 2008.

Of course, scholars aren't exactly lining up to be baptized as Mormons because John Welch found some cool chiastic passages in his unique treatment of the Book of Mormon. But once Mormonism becomes more helpful in obtaining tenure, perhaps that will change quickly. ;)

You may also enjoy another useful resource I just found on the importance of chiasmus in the Bible by Brad McCoy, "Chiasmus: An Important Structural Device Commonly Found in Biblical Literature" (PDF). Brad is a pastor with a Ph.D. in Biblical Studies from Trinity Theological Seminary (and no, he does not mention the Book of Mormon in his article, though he does cite Welch's book on chiasmus).

Chiasmus can be found in some degree almost anywhere and is found in many languages and literatures. As Freedman observes, sometimes it can be contrived by the reader and not really intended or consciously used as a literary device. Other uses can be rather trivial even if deliberate. This is where we get into the issue of the degree of chiasticity introduced by Welch ("Criteria for Identifying and Evaluating the Presence of Chiasmus," 1995), including various indicators to help us determine if the structure is deliberate, meaningful, and probably intended. There are many weak examples that enthusiasts for the Book of Mormon, the Bible, and other texts have found, but there are some real gems that should raise eyebrows, as I discuss on my page about chiasmus in the Book of Mormon. See also Boyd F. Edwards and W. Farrell Edwards, "Does Chiasmus Appear in the Book of Mormon by Chance?," BYU Studies, Vol. 43, no. 2, pp. 103-130 (2004).

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

"You Make Them Live Again by Speaking Their Words": The Popol Vuh and Respect for Ancient Scripture

I have begun looking at Dr. Allen J. Christenson's recent translation of the ancient Popol Vuh, a sacred text from the Mayan people. The translation was published in 2003 and electronically in 2007. It is entitled POPOL VUH: Sacred Book of the Quiché Maya People (Mesoweb Publications, 2007), available at "http://www.personal.psu.edu/abl128/PopolVu/PopolVuh.pdf" and also at "http://www.mesoweb.com/publications/Christenson/PopolVuh.pdf." Dr. Christenson is LDS. Some of his comments in his preface might be especially interesting to LDS audiences, though they should be interesting to all readers.

The preface and introduction is beautifully written. I especially enjoyed his personal account of how the elderly Quiché people he encountered one night showed deep respect for sacred written words of their ancestors (p. 6):
Before the others left for the night, I asked if they would like to hear the words of their fathers. This was greeted with indulgent smiles of disbelief, since few of their parents were alive and they were sure that I couldn’t have known them. But I told them that it wasn’t their fathers’ words that I carried with me, but rather those of their fathers’ fathers’ (repeated many times) fathers, dating back nearly five hundred years. I happened to have with me a copy of the Popol Vuh manuscript, a book that was compiled in the mid-sixteenth century at a town that still exists less than thirty miles from where we sat. I began to read from the first page of the book:
THIS IS THE ACCOUNT of when all is still silent and placid. All is silent and calm.

Hushed and empty is the womb of the sky.

THESE, then, are the first words, the first speech. There is not yet one person, one animal, bird, fish, crab, tree, rock, hollow, canyon, meadow, or forest. All alone the sky exists. The face of the earth has not yet appeared. Alone lies the expanse of the sea, along with the womb of all the sky. There is not yet anything gathered together. All is at rest. Nothing stirs. All is languid, at rest in the sky. There is not yet anything standing erect. Only the expanse of the water, only the tranquil sea lies alone. There is not yet anything that might exist. All lies placid and silent in the darkness, in the night. All alone are the Framer and the Shaper, Sovereign and Quetzal Serpent, They Who Have Borne Children and They Who Have Begotten Sons. Luminous they are in the water, wrapped in quetzal feathers and cotinga feathers. (Popol Vuh, pp. 67-69)
After I had read a page or two from the account of the creation of the earth, I stopped and waited for their reaction. No one spoke for some time. Finally, the elderly man with the sick boy asked if he might hold the unbound pages of the manuscript copy for a moment. He gently took it from my hands and with great care turned its pages.

“These are the words of my ancient fathers?” he asked.

“Yes.”

“Do you know what you have done for them?” I wasn’t quite sure what he meant, so I didn’t answer at first. “You make them live again by speaking their words.”
I love that. I read it before I realized that the translator was an LDS scholar, but sensed through his respect for the ancients and in sharing this story that he "got it." Ancient scripture is a treasure to be cherished. It turns the hearts of the children to the fathers.

The Popol Vuh has often been of interest to LDS people if only for the fact that it reminds us that some ancient Native Americans prized the written word and kept texts that described the Creation and other important events.  It also reminds us that traditions not just of writing but of sacred scripture and prophecy were had in Mesoamerica.

In considering where in the Americas the Book of Mormon might have taken place, one of the many factors pointing to Mesoamerica is the existence of ancient writing there. Established traditions of advanced writing systems flourished anciently in that region. Christensen (p. 23) observes that the Mayans had an advanced writing system combining phonetic and logographic elements capable of writing any word that could be spoken (p. 23):
Las Casas was particularly impressed by the fact that the Maya could write “everything they desired.” The Maya were, in fact, the only people in the New World who had a writing system at the time of the Spanish conquest which had this capability.
The Mayans apparently had thousands of texts when the Spaniards came. One of the greatest tragedies of history was the wanton destruction of Mayan records by the Spanish, wiping out almost all their writings, including sacred texts (p. 23):
Only four lowland Maya codices are known to have escaped these purges. We can only add our own laments to those of the Maya over the irretrievable loss of a people’s literary heritage. Of the many hieroglyphic books that once existed in the highlands, including the Precolumbian version of the Popol Vuh, not a single one is known to have survived.
A Scared Book from Across the Sea?
A few things of special interest to LDS readers crop up in the Popol Vuh. On page 23, Christenson writes:
In the preamble to the Popol Vuh, its Quiché authors wrote that the contents were based on an ancient book from across the sea (p. 64). In a later passage, the source of these writings is identified as Tulan, which they located across the sea to the east (p. 259), apparently a reference to the Maya lowlands of the Yucatán Peninsula. The Quiché lords held these “writings of Tulan” in great reverence and consulted them often (p. 287).
I cannot help but wonder if that land across the sea to the east, the source of the sacred book that the ancients used to consult often, might have been a little further east than Yucatan. Say, perhaps, Jerusalem? Well, that's just hopeful speculation for now, so I'll have to settle for the Yucatan. 

Scripture and Sacred Stones as Instruments of Vision
Another interesting little gem, so to speak, comes from pages 24-25:
The fact that the contents of the original Popol Vuh predated the Spanish conquest gave them an aura of mystery and power. Its authors referred to the ancient book upon which the Popol Vuh was based as an ilb'al, meaning “instrument of sight or vision” (p. 64; lines 51-52).

The word is used today to refer to the clear quartz crystals that Quiché priests use in divinatory ceremonies. It may also be used to refer to magnifying glasses or spectacles, by which things may be seen more clearly. Thus the rulers of the Quichés consulted the Popol Vuh in times of national distress as a means of seeing the future:
They knew if there would be war. It was clear before their faces. They saw if there would be death, if there would be hunger. They surely knew if there would be strife. There was an instrument of sight. There was a book. Popol Vuh was their name for it. (p. 287)
LDS readers might recall the discourse in Alma 37 (and elsewhere in LDS scripture) that links the special interpreters, the stone, with the revelatory gift of seeing or prophecy and with translation of scripture. Also related is the topic of the Urim and Thummim or also the seerstone, tools used to help a seer see. Interesting, in my opinion.  

Beware: The Redundant and Repetitive Text Is, Uh, Repetitive and Redundant
One of the most common complaints against the Book of Mormon can also be fairly lodged against the Popol Vuh. Christenson explains the "problem" with the Popol Vuh on page 34:
Yet the beauty of Quiché poetry may sound awkward and repetitive when translated into European languages. Some translators in the past have ignored or failed to recognize the poetic nature of the Popol Vuh, particularly its use of parallelism, and have tried to improve its seemingly purposeless redundancy by eliminating words, phrases, and even whole sections of text which they deemed unnecessary. While this unquestionably helps to make the story flow more smoothly, in keeping with our modern taste for linear plot structure, it detracts from the character of Quiché high literature. Welch points out that “in many ancient contexts, repetition and even redundancy appear to represent the rule rather than the exception” (Welch 1981, 12).
Yes, he's quoting John Welch of chiasmus fame. And yes, chiasmus is one of the forms of parallellism found in the Popol Vuh (see pp. 37-39 of the Introduction), as in the Book of Mormon, and in ancient Hebraic Poetry. Cool.

Finally, a few other random thoughts:
  • The Quiché capital of Cumarcah, mentioned on page 22, has an intriguing name, a little like Cumorah. Any possibility that its roots are ancient enough to relate to Book of Mormon names? Almost certainly just coincidence, I recognize. I also recognize that we know the ancient names for very few Mesoamerican sites today. One of the very few exceptions is the ancient city in Belize known as Lamanai. Most likely a coincidence, but a fun one. 
  • Christenson (p. 22) reminds us that perhaps 85% of the population in Guatemala was wiped out by the effects of the Spanish invasion due to disease and other factors. I've read even higher estimates of losses for other parts of the Americas. The ability of disease and war to wipe out entire family lines and tribes should be a reminder that genetic traces left by Nephi's line in the Americas, whatever his DNA may have looked like in 600 B.C. (there's no reliable definition of "Jewish" DNA now or then, though many modern Jews share a limited number of haplotypes), may have been made all the more difficult to detect by those monumental losses. 
Anyway, I am grateful for the beautiful translation and respectful introductory comments that Professor Christenson has offered, and thank him for his service to the Quiché people. By helping to preserve and share the words of the ancients, he has helped them to live again for their descendants and for us.  I hope you'll read at least some of the Popol Vuh and be grateful for the miracle of its preservation. I hope you'll be even more grateful for the miracle of the preserved text of the Book of Mormon, a sacred text from ancient writers who saw our day and speak to us now as a voice from the dust.

Monday, August 06, 2012

Off to a Great Start: The Mormon Interpreter and Nephi's Encounter with the Divine

The painful void that will be left at the Maxwell Institute is already being filled with the launch of the very promising new Mormon Interpreter. Check out the new scholarly publication there, "Thou Knowest That I Believe: Invoking The Spirit of the Lord as Council Witness in 1 Nephi 11” by David E. Bokovoy, an article that brings out a great deal of added meaning in Nephi's account by recognizing the significance of subtle elements related to other Hebraic accounts of ascent to the presence of Deity.

Providing a resource of this nature involves a good deal of time and money, and your donations can help. Yes, the Mormon Interpreter is a 501(c)3 non-profit that can receive tax deductible donations, and today would be a good time to donate.

Sunday, August 05, 2012

Trouble in Zion: Mormon Antibodies Against LDS Apologetics

One of the most significant accidents in my life was ending up in the same ward as Hugh Nibley, the brilliant and iconoclastic LDS scholar who helped Latter-day Saints around the world realize that scholarship coupled with faith can provide robust answers to the taunts of the world and strengthen us in our own journeys. That mixture, though, can lead to discomfort as faithful scholarship can often challenge lazy assumptions and old prejudices. The legacy of Nibley, though, has been remarkable, and led to the founding of FARMS, the Foundation of Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, a group of scholars boldly exploring the LDS-related insights we could get from the ancient world where our scriptures and many elements of the Gospel are rooted, in spite of the modernity of the Restoration. Not just the ancient world, though: FARMS staff and friends would explore many modern advances in knowledge to help us understand our faith and to effectively respond to our critics. FARMS would soon be brought under BYU administration and then recently renamed as the Neal Maxwell Institute.

The results of Mormon scholars exploring and defending our faith through the work of FARMS and the Maxwell Institute has been remarkable. Take a look at the online books page at the Maxwell Institute.  Wow, what a treasure trove of scholarship. There's an entire book, for example, just on scholarly insights related to Jacob 5 and its allegory of the olive tree in the Book of Mormon, including non-LDS contributions, which help us better appreciate the profound description in that chapter and, yes, the implausibility of Joseph Smith apparently knowing a good deal about ancient olive culture. Or check out the entire book on King Benjamin's Speech which explores the profound nature of this brief section of the Book of Mormon, including ancient Semitic elements that cannot be easily explained if the book is a modern forgery (for example, scholarly knowledge of the ancient covenant formulary would not come until over a century after the Book of Mormon was written).

In addition to these many valuable books, there are many treasures in the publications of FARMS and the Maxwell Institute, including vigorous rebuttals of many modern anti-Mormon works. Check out the first two links there, the Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture and the FARMS Review. These publications have inspired many, have strengthened testimonies, and have helped new converts overcome objections and move forward with their faith into the waters of baptism, while also helping many of us old members. The defense of the faith through vigorous, thoughtful, and scholarly  LDS apologetics has been one of the best things about BYU and one of the most exciting things in the Church, building greatly on the inspiring legacy of Hugh Nibley. Kudos to Daniel C. Peterson,  the LDS scholar who founded the FARMS Review 23 years ago and has faithfully continued editing that valuable resource. Kudos also to his associate editors, Louis C. Midgley, George L. Mitton, Gregory L. Smith and Robert White. Unfortunately, Bother Peterson and his associate editors have all just been fired by the new director of the Maxwell Institute in a very roughshod way. My interpretation is that familiar Mormon antibodies to apologetics have infected BYU. It's an incredible shame, a tragic loss, and one that I hope you can help correct.

Apologetics in the Church is not well understood. There are some with faith who are uncomfortable with scholarship ("we just need faith--who cares what scientists and scholars say?"), and there are some with scholarship who are uncomfortable with faith. The latter group includes cultural Mormons and some Mormon intellectuals who are embarrassed by Mormons with education still treating angels and gold plates as literal reality. Sadly, I find in many of this camp a desire to suppress the apologetic voice (see my post on intolerance over at the NauvooTimes).  They have often listened to what critics say about the scholars at FARMS rather than study their works carefully, for these intellectuals frequently allege that LDS apologetics is all about name calling and ad hominem attacks. Show me the irrelevant ad hominem arguments in the books or publications at the Maxwell Institute. If there is such content, it is rare and unusual.

Recently, though, some influential LDS folks were convinced that all this apologetics from Daniel Peterson and his team is just too controversial or embarrassing, and we need to abandon that course. Leave defense of the faith it to others, and let's concentrate on nice peer-reviewed publications that nobody will read. This may decrease pain as it decreases the taunting of BYU scholars by those over at the great and spacious website, but will the cause of Zion be prospered?

It's time for another restoration. I recommend that we restore FARMS and its mission, and quit apologizing for apologetics. Paul defended the faith boldly as he taught the Greeks, even drawing upon and quoting from their ancient poetry in Acts 17 to offer evidence for the faith in the form of interesting parallels to an ancient text, almost in a Nibley-like manner, in fact. Throughout the scriptures, the prophets, apostles, and Christ Himself reasoned with non-believers and believers, using scripture, analogies, and other resources to help people see the light and overcome common objections. Where do we see them telling people to just believe and rely on feelings alone? Evidence, logic, study, discourse, coupled with the power of the Spirit, were part of the ancient way of building Zion and are essential for us today.

We need to provide answers for some who stumble and many who doubt. We need to continue using all the tools the Lord has given us to build Zion, including the tools of scholarship and research. We have nothing to fear and much to gain and learn. Onward, Saints! Let's rebuild FARMS.